This year, my engineering team worked at the Daily Bread food bank's main distribution centre. This is an ancient warehouse south of Islington subway station, which sorts donated food and distributes it to 170 food banks and food programs across the city. It is an incredibly efficient operation.
We started by processing a truckload of unsaleable carrots donated by a local farm. We split into teams and started digging into one-tonne boxes of moldy, scarred, insect-bitten, and rotting carrots. Two-thirds of the produce went straight into the composting bins. We slashed away at the remainder with sharp knives, until all that was left were edible chunks of carrot, neatly packaged in two-kilo mesh bags. Surprisingly, none of us cut off any fingers. Carrots, beets, and onions are pretty much the only fresh vegetables that food bank users get in Toronto. The few tons of edible food we extracted from the rotting truckloads would be in people's stomachs by the next business day.
We then sorted food donations. Some of it was from schools and businesses that hold canned food drives. Most of it was discards from stores, who give items to the food bank because it's cheaper than paying for trash disposal. Donated items got spread out on long tables, and we checked the best-before dates. Except for baby food and some other items, the food bank will use things up to two years past the best-before date. We then sorted things into 35 different categories, packed them in cardboard boxes, and attached barcode labels on the outside. There was a huge imbalance in what was donated versus what people needed. For every can of tuna, there were three containers of pumpkin-spice lip balm. For every box of pasta, there were a dozen snack-paks of strawberry-lime pudding. For every jar of peanut butter, there was a whole sealed case of glow-in-the-dark battery-powered vibrating disposable razors with dead batteries. And for every pack of diapers, there was an enormous amount of pumpkin-spice personal lubricant. But everything gets used - when you're hungry, even expired kale chips with sea salt will fill you.
The barcoded boxes were stacked on skids in the warehouse, one pile for each category. Food banks and community centres across the city sent in their requirements. An after-school program needed snacks and juice; a new-mother program needed baby food; a shelter needed household and cleaning items. The warehouse foreman lead a team of us to collect each order, using a wireless barcode scanner to track each box as we packed a pallet for delivery. At the last minute, perishable items (carrots, bags of milk and tubs of yoghurt) were plucked from walk-in refrigerators and packed on top, and each order was wrapped in plastic. A forklift then stacked them in careful order in a truck, which then zipped to its destinations. None of us had our forklift driver's certification with us, so we weren't allowed to ride it.
It was interesting seeing how efficient their operation was. But my team agreed that none of us plan to eat carrots or anything with pumpkin spice for the immediate future.